Sue Whigham looks at this 'earth-friendly' approach to gardening using the planetary rhythms and soil regeneration to grow healthy organic crops
A couple of years ago we joined a group visiting Waltham Place, Strilli Oppenheimer's garden in Berkshire. Both the Oppenheimers' huge Brenthurst Estate in Johannesburg and this garden are run on pure organic principles. Mrs. Oppenheimer believes in a balanced ecosystem 'inspired by the wild' and 'that the environment is a great teacher'. True to her Buddhist principles, very few plants are pruned regularly, weeds eradicated or rabbits discouraged. All very unusual for those of us who spend a fortune on rabbit fencing and wrecking our backs hand-weeding and wielding loppers. Incidentally, it was fascinating to hear that at Brenthurst she has introduced Tai Chi lessons to her gardeners of whom she employs around fifty! However, back to the subject in question as it was at Waltham Place that we were introduced to the principles of a biodynamic vegetable plot.
It was in the 1920s that European farmers, worried about increasing mechanisation of agriculture and loss of the land's vitality, asked Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner to give a series of lectures from which developed the phrase 'biodynamic gardening'. He encouraged a movement towards the sort of sustainable and 'earth-friendly' farming that is so popular now, and the core of his rather controversial philosophy was that the phases of the moon affect plant growth. He also developed studies into companion planting and the use of nitrogen-fixing plants. His biodynamic cycle is detailed in that it involves the twelve signs of the zodiac as a way of accurately pinpointing the position of the moon at any one time.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, French farmers used methods of intensive crop growing which also became part of the biodynamic movement. In their case, they would grow crops close together to prevent, importantly, water evaporation and also the ability of weeds to take hold. They added tons of readily available organic material in the form of horse manure and could grow up to nine crops each year in this way.
So how do you define biodynamics? The BDAA or Biodynamic Agricultural Association defines it thus: 'Biodynamics has a holistic world view that sees the influence of planetary rhythms on the growth of plants as of equal importance to a purely chemical analysis.' The stress, though, is on regenerating the soil in order to encourage healthy and natural plant growth. When crops are harvested, we take both them and the vitality of the land out simultaneously and need to put back into the ground preparations to re-enhance the goodness of the soil naturally. The BDAA add to their manure heaps small quantities of plants including nettles, yarrow and valerian, the properties of which help the breakdown of the compost and add the different elements needed for healthy growth such as nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium. They believe that plants grown in soil enhanced by their improved compost become more sensitive to both their environment and to the rhythms of both the seasons and the moon. There are biodynamic farms and gardens in forty countries including a rapidly developing movement in India, and the BDAA itself has twenty-four groups in the UK. Many of these groups make their own preparations available to their members. Biodynamic seeds are available too and there is a study centre in Switzerland combining many different branches of 'spiritual science' and which serves as a focus for Steiner-influenced philosophy and initiatives. All absolutely fascinating stuff.
It has been suggested that the Egyptians and the Babylonians were the first peoples to farm using a moon planting calendar of their own devising. Depending on geographical location there would always be variations on a theme, but it was realised early on that the phases of the moon had a definite influence on vegetation through the 'rising and falling of moisture in the ground and in the plants'.
It seems to me that the simple form of moon planting is the synodic cycle which groups plants into categories and assigns these categories to the phases of the moon which best suits the way they grow. Twenty-eight days is the length of a lunar cycle. During this time lunar light forces and gravitational pull fluctuates. The conditions for foliage growth of plants improve as the moon waxes (or becomes brighter). And as lunar gravity is reduced, root growth is stimulated. As lunar gravity increases, the root development slows down. Ideally then, following the concepts of biodynamic planting, the best time to sow seeds would be a couple of days before a new moon. The seven days after a new moon is considered to be the most ideal for both root and foliar development. For the seven days of the lunar cycle before a full moon, the moon obviously appears brighter and thus encourages plant growth. After a full moon, the moon begins to wane; there is less light and foliage growth slows down but root growth continues. This is the best time to transplant your seedlings as the roots are strong enough to cope with the shock of disturbance.
The next cycle begins again at the arrival of the new moon. Practitioners of lunar or moon gardening would also take into consideration what constellation the moon is passing in front of. This leads to specific plant days such as flower days, root days, fruit days and leaf days. For us beginners, one needs to know the phases of the moon: i.e. is it waxing or waning? During a waxing moon, the earth is exhaling, therefore sow non-root crops. If it is waning, the earth is inhaling and it is time to both water and fertilise. To add to this, moon paths are important in that if the moon is ascending, sap is rising too, so this is a good time to graft plants and to harvest non-root vegetables. If it is descending, the sap is lowered, thus making this a perfect time for planting or pruning.
If this all seems a little complicated at first, there's now a huge variety of sources from which to learn more, from books to videos and dvds. I particularly liked Biodynamic Gardening by John Soper, and the Moon Gardening Calendar provided by Tidegraph, who are based in Sussex, is fascinating.
For further information visit www.LunarOrganics.com (for more information about the Moon Gardening Calendar). The Biodynamic Agricultural Association (BDAA), The Painswick Inn Project, Gloucester Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5 1QG. Tel: 01453 759501 www.biodynamic.org.uk